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the healthiest diet?

Well, what should an athlete eat? As the accompanying article indicates, there are almost as many opinions on that question as there are athletes. One solution is to ask the experts. Two authorities, one a dietary "conservative," the other a "liberal," gave SPORTS ILLUSTRATED their views on the ideal regimen for athletes, such as football players and long-distance runners, who expend large amounts of energy.

The "liberal" is physiologist Joan Ullyot, an M.D. who specializes in sports medicine at the Institute of Health Research in San Francisco. In a study of more than 1,000 healthy persons, Ullyot determined that the healthiest were vegetarians who run. The next healthiest were non-running vegetarians, followed by runners who eat an ordinary diet, then non-runners on an ordinary diet. The doctor herself has run the marathon in under three hours. Needless to say, she recommends that athletes—and anybody else, for that matter—go on a vegetarian diet, one that includes eggs and milk products.

Ullyot suggests starting the day with a breakfast of whole grain cereal and fruit. For lunch or dinner, she recommends vegetable soup, a salad, cottage cheese and, perhaps, even a little fish. (She's not all that strict about vegetarianism.) For snacks there's nothing better than whole grain bread slathered with natural peanut butter and washed down with a glass of milk.

"A lot of football players are scared to go on a vegetarian diet because they think they won't get enough protein, but that's not true," Ullyot says. "There's nothing you get from meat that you can't get from a good vegetarian diet." For bulk and endurance, an athlete should fill up on carbohydrates—spaghetti, lasagna, potatoes. "Professional athletes often have the misconception that you have to build yourself up with lots of protein," Ullyot says. "That's a ridiculous idea. You need carbohydrates as fuel to provide all the energy you are using."

Ullyot recognizes that it is difficult for most athletes to make the radical change from the traditional, meat-heavy training-table diet to a vegetarian one, but says that the health advantages—dramatically lower cholesterol and blood fat levels, for example—make it worth the effort.

"The main obstacle to most players adopting such a diet," says Ullyot, "is the advice they get from trainers and coaches all during their years in high school and college. Any coach who believes steak and eggs are best is behind the times."

Does the doctor practice what she preaches? "Actually, I'm not much of an absolute-principle type myself," she says. "I can't pass up a nice piece of meat."

A diet of more familiar fare is suggested by Dr. Beverly Bullen, director of the graduate program in nutrition at Boston University and a former student of Tufts University President Dr. Jean Mayer, the United States' most renowned nutritionist. Dr. Bullen's recommendation is for "a generally balanced diet—vegetables, meat, carbohydrates and so on—with enough calories to cover the rigors of training." That's simple enough, but Bullen quickly adds a few warnings. Eat lean meats such as poultry and fish for the high-grade protein that, she contends, the athlete needs and cannot get from strictly vegetarian fare, but go easy on steak, because it has too much fat. Drink skim milk fortified with vitamins A and D rather than whole milk with its high fat content.

"Everyone is eating too much fat," says Bullen, who has done extensive research on the health problems of the obese. Although an athlete can usually handle more fat in his diet than a sedentary person, he has special problems in the off-season and at retirement. If he keeps eating as if he were still at the training table—even though he is burning many fewer calories—the result will be a roll of flab when he returns to training camp or, for a retired athlete, perhaps a heart attack in his 40s.

Even high protein consumption can cause trouble, according to Bullen. The more animal protein a person eats the more urea he produces, making the kidneys work harder; the result in some cases is serious kidney damage. "However," she says, "if eating a lot of meat psychs a player up and convinces him that it will help his game, then I guess it's all right, so long as someone makes certain it isn't causing him any injury." In any case, an athlete should never eat a high protein or fat-heavy meal within four hours of competition, because it takes too long to digest.

Dr. Bullen on nutritional fads:

•On megavitamins: "As a rule, if you are taking more than 10 times the daily allowance of a vitamin, you aren't using it as a vitamin, but as a drug. Vitamins A and D can be toxic at high levels, and any high dosage is potentially harmful."

•"There's nothing really wrong with some refined sugar as long as you are getting all the nutrients you need."

•"Vegetarians should watch their diets more carefully than athletes who eat meat. Try to complement one kind of vegetable protein with another. Make sure you get enough vitamin B12."